In 2002, West Nile hit Chicago hard. At the end of the year, after 22 had died from the virus, the city's public-health officials looked back and asked what could have been done differently. An answer came from an unlikely source: data collected from 311, a hotline for residents to request city services. Nearly 4,000 calls had been placed that summer and early fall to ask the sanitation department to pick up dead crows. The public-health team, knowing that dead birds often mean West Nile is afoot, overlaid maps of 311 calls and human cases of the virus. Their hunch was right: calls to 311 predicted where West Nile was about to hit. So now, each summer, Chicago officials closely watch 311 calls about dead birds and strategically send work crews with larvicide to kill mosquitoes before they hatch and start transmitting the virus. Chicago hasn't had a major outbreak since.
When the first 311 service was launched in Baltimore, Md., in 1996, no one expected it to be more than an unglamorous cousin to 911, which had been clogged with nonemergency calls about stumbling drunks and yapping dogs. But as 311 spread across the U.S., it evolved twice. First, it became a means for cities to improve customer service by cataloging complaints and tracking response time--and a much easier option for residents than navigating individual city agencies. And now a few cities like Chicago, Dallas and Chattanooga, Tenn., are not only answering 311 calls but also analyzing the larger patterns that emerge from them. In those places, 311 has become a direct line into the urban consciousness--a way of harnessing the collective needs of an entire population to make a city work better. That is urban reform at its most elegant.
In Baltimore, which gets 60,000 calls to 311 each month, the innovation has helped crack systemic problems ranging from potholes to graffiti to snow removal to floodwater. When 2003's Hurricane Isabel hit and calls about submerged streets cascaded into the downtown Baltimore call center, the water department mapped the calls' origins down to the address and then applied maps of the city's storm-water system. Department officials determined which storm drains were clogged and sent crews to clear them. "311 is genius in its simplicity," says Ted O'Keefe, director of Chicago's 311 City Services Center.
New York City residents make about 41,000 calls to 311 every day. The largest complaint? Noise. That may not seem surprising for big-city life, but what 311 revealed was that the biggest racket came from construction sites and barking dogs--not bars and restaurants, as neighborhood groups had always led the city to believe. "311 democratizes the system," says Charles Sturcken of the city's department of environmental protection, which monitors 18 categories of noise. One result is a new noise-control bill making its way through the city council that would rework regulations on everything from car alarms to ice cream trucks--and require that construction sites have noise-reduction plans. Some of those noise complaints also shed light on an old problem: unlicensed, makeshift bars. But which calls were just about illegal clubs, and which were about rowdy neighbors? New York City's 311 staff, working with half a dozen agencies, used maps to connect data about different sorts of calls--noise, public drunkenness, double parking--to find the clubs and bust them.